Neonworld by Dusty Sprengnagel (1996)

Dusty Sprengnagel comes to the neon industry with very diverse credits and influences. He has worked as a designer, actor, crew member, photographer, videographer and now sole proprietor of Neonline, a design and manufacturing firm in Vienna. But he credits a trip to Asia with sparking his his long-term interest in neon.

The year was 1985; stops included LA, Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. ‘Coming from sedate Vienna to the vibrating nightscapes of these nervous, illuminated metropolises, I felt overwhelmed be the pulsation of light, the multitude and diversity of sign reflections… Looking at my slides back home, I realized I had taken dozens of shots of neon signs and sculptures.’

Before this, Sprengnagel had started a professional career in decorating and set dressing. In the early ’70s he also worked with art and experimental video projects, such as designing and acting in Beans and Harald Oroschakoff’s Cage Free Room. His international cinema and movie-production credits include Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing, special effects assistant on Prisoner of Zenda and set dresser on The Human Mind. In 1983, he wrote and directed the short film Crutches, and he has since completed two feature-film scripts with Alfred Paul Schmidt und Carl Ludwig. 

Bringing neon to bear ‘inspired by this newly discovered medium, I wanted to use it more as an element in my decorating work,’ says Sprengnagel. ‘It proved difficult to find quality adequate to what I had seen. The ensuing research pulled me deeper and deeper into the neon scene; finally I ended up owning a neon business myself.’

From the outset, Neonline Vienna has executed standard commercial commissions and also developed specific projects in collaboration with clients. This mutual work process and Neonline’s readiness to meet the customer’s visions appealed to a new sort of clientele. Increasingly, architects designers and decorators began incorporating neon in window and trade-fair displays, stage sets, exhibition installations and interiors of restaurants, bars and discotheques. 

Sprengnagel enjoys ‘transforming an abstract idea into a technically viable solution’ and ‘fulfilling technical requisites without compromising the aesthetic concept.’ ‘I’m always working on getting the neon object to interact with the specific environment and the ambiance’, says Sprengnagel. ‘While this is important in the field of commercial advertising, it is even more so in the architectural context.’

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Collaborating on art projects, or creating them himself, working on exhibitions, installation pieces and stage sets allows Sprengnagel to integrate neon in dramatic manner. There are places where minimalist use of the medium creates stunning effects. On the other hand, he believes the provocative contrast between neon as a hip contemporary medium - by Vienna standards - and historical facades can be just as interesting. ‘In the objects designed by myself I love experimenting with the combination of various materials, creating a sort of tension different sensual qualities.’

To a certain degree his interest in film-making and has given way to photography and creative neon work. When travelling with his camera, he hunts for picturesque scenes – often involving neon – as if researching movie sets. ‘Since the mid-80s, I have always continued to deal with neon as a photographer also, never losing my fascination with night moods and light moods. When dusk sets in, the city recedes, dissolves into a dark playground for gleaming dragons, cowboys, fish, lobsters, palm trees, nudes, Elvis Presley, Felix the Cat and me.’

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Introduction – by the author of The New Let There Be Neon

Dusty loves neon and this is the diary he’s been keeping. But far more than exploring the world of neon, he travels the globe drawing his own electric maps. His maps consist of his favorite moments in neon light. The particular language of a neon sign becomes quite incidental. So too its message.

Whether in Hebrew or Chinese or Route 66 English, his archeological research is not interrupted by translations, sociological detours or the particulars of sign manufacture. Dusty reads the neon glow and its effect on what is around it. He enjoys these private moments of neon reflection. 

And so he is finally a kind of obsessive neon voyeur. At first I thought of him as a neon archeologist, but it is not the history of a neon sign which intrigues him at all,but rather his purely personal enjoyment of what it does to him and to its location in which he discovered it. Especially when it comes to American neon, one can feel his rapport with the lonely and isolated roadside spaces illuminated by his favorite kind of light. Perhaps it takes an European with an artistic background like Dusty’s to fully enjoy the spontaneity and energy of American neon. 

Though sometimes it seems he’s documenting an electric Pompeii for future tourists to our planet, he’s really an artist following the light with a good eye. And his compass is well tuned. His ongoing travel diary consists of crossroads of neon light. Dusty’s crossroads are drawn with a very personal set of electric markers. The afterglow of each notation forms a very special continuity which stretches through cities and across borders and time like the passage of the light itself. It can’t be contained by place. Past, present and future neon hieroglyphics meld together in a stream of dreamlight which often seems to come more from inside his head than from what he is actually so meticulously recording. 

Dusty Sprengnagel enjoys the language of neon. He happens to be fluent in it. He likes the way neon fingers poke into the sky whether it’s a sunrise in Reno or a sunset in Hong Kong or some stretch of road with not-much-of-a-name, where the syntax will always be a mystery. 

Neon Line in Vienna, the company he and Ilona, his companion in business and family, have lovingly developed over the last decade, is know for its meticulous craftmanship and attention to design. Dusty rightfully prides himself on the quality of his installations, on the precision of Mario D’Ambrosio glass bending and finally on the way the neon light affects the somber Viennese textures and spaces. His priority is the beauty of the light, whether from his own creation or some anonymous craftperson he will never get a chance to meet. This book of images is witness to Dusty’s love affair with neon light.

Rudi Stern

Vienna, September 1996